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Like Trying to Stop the Wind

June 13, 2011

“Like Trying to Stop the Wind” Numbers 11:24-30 Pentecost A © 6.12.11 by Tom Cheatham at First Presbyterian Church, Amory, MS. All rights reserved.

Ugh! I can’t look at another piece of manna, that yellow-orange gooey stuff. My wife has fixed it every way she can think of. She even used the recipes in that new cook scroll from the Daughters of Sarah, published by Oxhead House: 1001 Ways to Cook Manna. Sometimes she pulls out the old standby, Manna! Manna! Manna! with its companion booklet, Manna Manners. And she ought to know what she’s doing. She was Miss Manna, 1200 BC. We’ve had manna muffins. Manna mush. Manna manicotti. And that all-time favorite: manna with manna sauce garnished with manna. I’m going nuts from all this manna, and I still don’t know what it is!

I want some good stuff, just like the other 599,999 people in this camp. Grilled fish and veggies, fruit, something spicy and aromatic. You know, with garlic and peppers. Tasty food. Or even if it’s not quite what I’m hungry for, at least something different.

Moses has heard all the complaints. In our daily staff meeting, I tell him how the people want some meat, how they’re saying that even slavery in Egypt was better than freedom if they have to put up with this boring diet.

But I think Moses has had it. He’d rather eat manna for the rest of his life than put up with these stubborn, ungrateful people. He’s fed up with caring so much, with being responsible, with having to endure day after day the stress of governing this motley mob of malcontents. Last night he had a big argument with God about it all. The essence of it was that if Yahweh didn’t get Moses some help and lots of it, right now, Moses didn’t want to live. God could just kill him on the spot, because the situation was intolerable.

That’s how we came to select seventy elders from among the people. Upstanding men who were already recognized in their tribes as people of wisdom and experience, capable of handling some extra responsibility. They could hear the complaints du jour and be given authority to rule on those matters. Moses and I would meet with them periodically in a kind of council and make the big, far-reaching decisions.

As I look out over the group, I realize that I know most all of these men, and I agree with the choices Moses has made. In fact, I suggested several of their names, and I was pleased that Moses trusted me enough to take my advice. Not that there’s any reason he shouldn’t trust me. We’ve always been friends, and he has even dropped hints that when he goes the way of all flesh I will succeed him.

Yes, indeed, capable, upstanding fellows, all of them. But they will need more than natural abilities if they are to fulfill the tasks to which they have been called. That’s why we’re standing here in front of the Tent of Meeting, waiting on God to speak. The Lord made an extraordinary promise to Moses. Here in this place, some of the holy spirit that had rested on our leader would be given to the seventy gathered, empowering and enabling them to carry out with wisdom and discernment their work of listening and judging.

Look! The glory cloud—the Shekinah that has been leading us through this wilderness—that Cloud of Presence is descending on us all. I’m feeling so many different emotions right now. Awe. Fear. Wonder. Joy. Yahweh is speaking to Moses. Suddenly, someone in the group starts to shout, then another, then another. That man over there is dancing so frantically, I fear he’ll pass out. God is here! These men are prophesying! It’s really happening! They’ve let loose control of themselves, and Yahweh has taken over! Hallelujah! Praise Yahweh!

In the midst of this celebration, out of the corner of my eye, I see a figure moving toward the group. He’s coming from the direction of the camp. As he gets nearer, I can tell it’s Gershom, the son of Moses. He breaks through the crowd and comes right up to his father. The boy is obviously agitated and upset. When I hear the news I understand why: Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.

In the camp! No, it can’t be. It mustn’t be. We placed this Tent of Meeting outside the living area of the people because being in the presence of God is dangerous; there’s no telling what might happen when the spirit comes on someone. Just look at what’s going on here. And besides, for the ordinary, uninitiated person, to see such as thing as this ecstatic prophecy would be disconcerting, frightening. Children could have nightmares.

Cynics might say that Moses and I, and whoever else is in charge, want to restrict access to God, that it’s all a big power play. But there have to be limits. Some form, some order, some decency. We simply can’t have the spirit coming on people without regard to matters of where and when and who says so, without proper validation, the witness of the constituted authorities that the ecstasy is indeed the spirit of God.

Now, don’t misunderstand. I have the utmost regard for Eldad and Medad. They’re recognized leaders in the community. Eldad is a businessman, honest, God-fearing. Medad I’m not as acquainted with, but people I respect tell me they hold him in high esteem. I have no idea why, having been chosen for this new task by Moses, the two did not come to the Tent of Meeting. Maybe they were on their way and got sidetracked. A family crisis or an unexpected guest. Perhaps they forgot the meeting time. Not everyone is as punctual and serious about responsibilities as I am. Yes, their names are on the approved list, but that doesn’t excuse their shameful, ill-mannered behavior. Prophesying in the camp, in the midst of everyday life! What’s next if we let that happen? Chaos, I tell you, utter chaos!

“Moses,” I say. “You’ve got to stop them.” And I tell him why, the concerns that are troubling me. I’m taken aback by his response. After all these years, I’ve never felt so put down by him. And I just can’t bring myself to agree with him. “Is it me you’re concerned about?” he asks. Well, of course, it’s you, I say to myself. Do you think I’m threatened? Do you think I don’t have the welfare of this community in mind, the need to keep it from harm, to maintain an even footing? God knows, Moses has enough troubles as it is, without having to deal with a couple of renegades who won’t get with the program, who don’t have the good manners to duck inside a tent when religious fervor comes on them. Why would I be threatened?

“I wish all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would put his spirit upon them.” Huh? I’m not sure I heard correctly. All? Does he realize the implications of that vision, that dream, which I cannot imagine ever coming true? All? Every man? Every woman? Even youth and children? That straggler who can’t keep up and the strangers who wander into our camp and live with us for a while? The old who can’t take care of themselves? The servants doing the menial tasks? That guy two tents over whom I can’t stand? He’s going to be a prophet, like me? Moses, Moses, Moses, you and I must have a talk. You’ve been out in this desert sun too long.

Think of it, will you? If all the Lord’s people were prophets—from youngest to oldest, richer, poorer, men, women, everyone—if all had the spirit of God, that kind of movement could turn the world upside down. I’m not sure I’m quite ready for such a radical turn of events. Because once such a thing got started, you could no more stop it than you could stop a raging wind.

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